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I am a medievalist and an adjunct college instructor in the humanities at Union College. My research includes medieval theologies of history, text/image relationships in visionary and mystical texts, and the writings of the twelfth-century Doctor of the Church, St. Hildegard of Bingen. I am also a translator of medieval Latin and German texts, especially as relate to my research. My translation of Hildegard's Book of Divine Works is available from Catholic University of America Press here. I completed a Master's in Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame in 2010, a Fulbright Fellowship in Germany in 2008, and a B.A. in Classics and German at Boston College in 2007.

Friday, February 08, 2008

It's still a human fetus

In an insightful and provocative story in this weekend’s issue, the New York Times Magazine examines the possible existence and extent of a fetus’ ability to suffer pain while in the womb. While approaching the topic initially from the perspective of fetal surgery (a fascinating and amazing example of the advance of medical technology), the article acknowledges and later examines the impact of the ability of a fetus to feel pain on the issue of legalized abortion. While I commend the entire article to my readers, I want to focus on an anecdote offered early in the article:
Most invasive of all is open fetal surgery, in which a pregnant woman’s uterus is cut open and the fetus exposed. Ray Paschall, an anesthesiologist at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville, remembers one of the first times he provided anesthesia to the mother and minimally to the fetus in an open fetal operation, more than 10 years ago. When the surgeon lowered his scalpel to the 25-week-old fetus, Paschall saw the tiny figure recoil in what looked to him like pain. A few months later, he watched another fetus, this one 23 weeks old, flinch at the touch of the instrument. That was enough for Paschall. In consultation with the hospital’s pediatric pain specialist, “I tremendously upped the dose of anesthetic to make sure that wouldn’t happen again,” he says. In the more than 200 operations he has assisted in since then, not a single fetus has drawn back from the knife. “I don’t care how primitive the reaction is, it’s still a human reaction,” Paschall says. “And I don’t believe it’s right. I don’t want them to feel pain.”
Mr. Paschall is among several medical personnel quoted in the article (the most prominent being Kanwaljeet “Sunny” Anand, who has been a tireless advocate over the last three decades for infant and fetal pain management) who also support, at least in limited terms, a woman's right to have an abortion. Yet, what I find most provocative is Mr. Paschall's statement, “I don’t care how primitive the reaction is, it’s still a human reaction. And I don’t believe it’s right. I don’t want them to feel pain.” I would echo his words to say, no matter how primitive the fetus is, it’s still a human fetus.

This brings me, however, to a point on the debate over abortion that I've been meaning to make for quite a long time (and I should make clear before we start that in the following argument, I appeal only to human reason and the natural law; my conclusions do not rely on any revealed truths peculiar to Christianity). As I've alluded to previously, this year’s election once again represents a showdown between those who would protect human life at all stages of development (represented by their presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain), and those who insist that the government not guarantee the right to life that was once so eloquently named “inalienable.”

Supporters of candidates like Sen. Hillary Clinton will tout that she believes that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.” Yet, what they don't realize is the logical contradiction behind such a statement. If one believes that a human fetus is an innocent human life (N.B. the adjective innocent indicates that the fetus is guilty of nothing by which it would deserve punishment, an assumption that I hold to be self-evident), then the natural law that informs us that homicide is immoral also informs us that abortion is immoral. To put it into syllogistic form: (A1) It is immoral and legally punishable to purposely kill an innocent human life. (B1) A human fetus is an innocent human life. (C1) Therefore, abortion (the killing of a human fetus) is immoral and legally punishable.

(N.B. I have included the adjective "innocent" in the major premise because, at least according to the natural law, there are certain situations where it is morally and legally permissible to kill a human life, e.g. in warfare. The revealed beliefs of religion may place additional restrictions on these situations, but as I have said, I am arguing here from the natural law.)

The corollary to this syllogism is that if one believes that abortion should be legal, then one denies either one or both of the premises. Since I've yet to meet an abortion supporter who denies the major premise (indeed, many abortion supporters offer more comprehensive versions of the major premise than some pro-lifers do, i.e. they extend the immorality of killing to capital punishment and even to warfare), then it is clear that abortion supporters must deny the minor premise, namely, that a human fetus is an innocent human life. Furthermore, since I've also never met an abortion supporter who claims that a human fetus is a guilty human life, then it is also clear that abortion supporters deny that part of the minor premise that declares a fetus to be a human life.

If, therefore, one believes that a fetus is not a human life, that is, if one believes that the fetus is simply an extension of the body of the mother, and that the mother therefore exercises the full sovereign rights over the fetus that she exercises over the rest of her body, then one's moral judgement on abortion is reduced to a judgement concerning those sovereign rights. The syllogism would then follow: (A2) Without extenuating circumstances, a human being exercises personal sovereignty over his or her body. (B2) A fetus is a part of a woman's body. (C2) Therefore, a woman exercises personal sovereignty over her fetus.

If this is really what Sen. Hillary Clinton believes, then her position in favor of abortion is logical. What is not logical, however, is her claim that abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare." It is this last factor that leads her into trouble. She must have some reason for wanting abortion to be rare. Yet, as far her logical position is concerned, it shouldn't matter to her whether abortion is rare or not, just as it shouldn't matter to her whether a woman dyes her hair blond or black, or pierces her navel or her ears, or gets breast implants or breast reduction surgery. Each of these decisions are made out of the woman's sovereign rights over her body, and Sen. Clinton doesn't have anything to do with those decisions.

Yet, Sen. Clinton does say that she wants abortions to be rare. In fact, one is unlikely to meet any abortion advocate who claims that they don't want abortion to be rare. And the reason for this is simple: as much as abortion advocates try to delude themselves into believing their syllogism, they do not, in fact, actually hold to it. Despite their attempts to ignore the prods of the natural law, they do, in fact, conceive, at least subconsciously, of a moral dimension to the decision to have an abortion.

Where they in fact fail is in the first part of the major premise: Without extenuating circumstances. This caveat to the premise is necessary for its logical cohesion, because both individually and as a state we acknowledge that there are circumstances under which a human being does not exercice personal sovereignty over his or her body. For example, we place age restrictions on things like drinking and smoking and getting body piercings; we also admit that convicted criminals have abdicated, at least temporarily, certain of their rights, like the right of free movement; we even go so far as to refuse certain classes of the clinically and criminally insane of almost all their rights of personal sovereignty over their bodies.

For the abortion syllogism to hold, there must, therefore, be no extenuating circumstances. Yet, it is evident that there are extenuating circumstances when a woman is pregnant. Whether you believe that a fetus is a human life or not, we all agree that, if carried to term, it will be a living, breathing, moving baby. Furthermore, the woman cannot produce the fetus by herself; the fetus is as much the product of its father as it is the mother's. Finally, especially given our modern ability with ultrasound technology to visualize the fetus, we all do feel, despite our views on abortion, that twang of amazement, wonder, and awe when the fetus we have fathered or mothered sucks its thumb or kicks its foot in the womb.

The fact is, the natural law is squeezing its way into Sen. Clinton's views whether she likes it or not. What she doesn't realize is that in calling for abortion to be "rare", she admits that there are compelling reasons to discourage the practice. For these compelling reasons to exist, the logical syllogism that allows abortion to go unopposed falls apart. Sen. Clinton's own humanity undermines her support of abortion. Although abortion advocates will tell you that there is a grey area, they are simply trying a trick of sophistry in order to have their cake and eat it too. The choice is simple: either abortion has absolutely no moral consequences and should be perfectly legal; or abortion does have moral consequences, and the first syllogism that we proposed is the proper one. As we have shone the former conclusion to be false, there remains but one logically consistent, proper conclusion: (C1) Abortion (the killing of a human fetus) is immoral and legally punishable.

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